BIRD WATCH: Swallows wing their way to Peninsula too early

THE SWALLOWS ARE supposed to return in March and April.

Birds don’t always do what we expect them to do. Reports of swallow sightings began coming in this winter, and that is more than a little unsettling.

These are warm-weather birds whose existence depends on a good bug population. There aren’t a lot of flying insects around in January and February. These early sightings cover a wide area.

First reports (that I am aware of) were of four barn swallows flying around Nisqually. Then, on Jan. 19, three were seen in Kitsap County near Yukon Harbor. In February, three species of swallows (barn, tree, violet-green) were flying around Dungeness on the Olympic Peninsula.

As the different reports came in, some birders (including me) were shaking their heads and muttering about this being “not good.”

A long spell of freezing weather could mean a plunge in the swallow population. Their numbers have been dropping for a long time, so that is depressing.

Further input from experienced birders brought up the fact that swallows in the winter wasn’t unheard of.

The reason given was that the birds lose their directional sense and head in the wrong direction.

That does happen, but it seems unlikely that several different species would do this over a period of several weeks. Why did these birds head this far north so early?

About the time these reports began, California was seeing some of the worst weather in a number of years. Heavy wind and torrential rains pummeled the southern coast.

That isn’t the kind of weather swallows like, even if there are bugs around. It’s almost impossible to fly in it when inches of rain are hitting the area for a long period of time.

Maybe the swallows headed north early in an attempt to find better weather. They could become disoriented the farther they traveled and the weather grew cold.

Perhaps that accounts for them pushing so far northward. Birds flying about the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula could still be looking for better weather.

Everything is a guess on my part, so I pulled out a favorite reference book to see if anything like this has occurred before.

“Birds of Washington State” by Jewett, Taylor, Shaw and Aldrich was published in 1953 by the University of Washington Press. Its detailed records go back to the state’s earliest bird records.

Historically, the tree swallow has always been the early bird: “Unauthenticated reports record its arrival as early as January 21 … It is certain, however, that it often puts in an appearance by the last of February.”

Violet-green swallows arrive hard on the heels of the tree swallows, and records are of birds arriving as early as Feb. 25. They can be expected anytime in March.

There are no early records of barn swallows arriving before April. Those seen on the Olympic Peninsula in February may set some new records.

The question of why so many early swallows this year remains a mystery and poses a second question: Will the purple martins, the largest member of the swallow family, also arrive earlier than “normal”?

Late April into early May is when we expect them to come winging into the Northwest.

All of this is a reminder that the migrants are headed our way and if birdhouses are to be waiting for them, they should be in place.

The local resident birds are already looking them over. A flicker hammering on the chickadee house isn’t popular with the ’dees, or me.

The house is one the swallows will occupy once the chickadees have fledged their youngsters.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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